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Hot fashion – the impact on the global climate

Our analysis shows far too few brands are doing enough about the hidden deforestation in their fabrics.

An Insight by Emma Thomson and Sarah Rogerson

Sustainability is having a bit of a moment in the world of fashion - from upcycled clothes, to carbon neutral collections. But while the shift to virtual shows may have helped reduce the carbon footprint of fashion, analysis by Global Canopy has found far too few brands are doing enough about the hidden deforestation in their fabrics. 

The fashion industry has been estimated as the fourth largest contributor to global carbon emissions, but that is without taking into account the emissions from deforestation linked to the production of leather and wood-based fibres. 

[Read more about how leather and wood-based fibres can be linked to deforestation here]

Company reporting 

Many companies already report on their climate impacts, but emissions from land-use change linked to the production of raw materials, such as leather or wood-based fibres, are rarely included. 

Companies usually report on their direct emissions (known as Scope 1) and emissions from energy usage (Scope 2). For most companies in forest risk supply chains, emissions from land-use change are generally indirect and so fall into Scope 3. They would only fall into Scope 1 for companies that directly clear land.

But Scope 3 emissions are difficult to calculate and often left out of company reporting. Different methodologies exist to help companies calculate or estimate their scope 3 emissions, so even companies that do report on these emissions may not be comparable and the methodologies may not include emissions from land-use change. Methodologies to standardise calculations of scope 3 emissions from land use change are under development. 

Categories of emissions (adapted from the GHG protocol website):

  • Scope 1: All direct GHG emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the reporting entity.
  • Scope 2: Indirect GHG emissions from consumption of purchased electricity, heat or steam.
  • Scope 3: Other indirect emissions, such as the extraction and production of purchased materials and fuels, transport-related activities in vehicles not owned or controlled by the reporting entity, electricity-related activities (e.g. T&D losses) not covered in Scope 2, outsourced activities, waste disposal, etc.

The latest Forest 500 assessment shows that only 13 of the 350 biggest companies in forest-risk supply chains explicitly reported on emissions from land-use change.

None of the 45 clothing or footwear companies we assessed for their exposure to leather or cellulose reported these emissions.

Avoiding the problem

While guidance to calculate and act on scope 3 land use change emissions is not yet readily available, companies could have much of the same impact by tackling the deforestation in their supply chains. And guidance and examples of best practice does exist here. 

Just 8% of clothing companies exposed to leather in their supply chains had made a commitment to ensure their leather was deforestation-free, and only 3% had committed to ensuring their leather wasn’t contributing to conversion of any natural ecosystems. 

And while more companies had taken action to curb the impact of their cellulose production on forests, only 18% had committed to ensuring their supply chains were deforestation-free. None had made a conversion-free commitment.

Deforestation-free fashion

The coronavirus pandemic has forced change on the world of fashion, and as such has perhaps created an opportunity to rethink supply chains.
By recognising the deforestation-risk in leather and cellulose fabrics, companies can take action to minimise those risks – with the potential to reduce fashion’s impact on tropical forests and reduce carbon emissions at the same time.

The contribution of forests to climate change mitigation is enormous. Eliminating deforestation and restoring previously cleared land could offer up to 16-30% of the climate mitigation necessary to keep the average rise in global temperature below 1.5℃. 

Companies involved in forest-risk supply chains need to include deforestation in their climate impacts and accounting. Companies already working on deforestation in their supply chains could benefit from linking their targets and progress to the associated emissions to demonstrate their progress towards climate goals.


Image: Pexels

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